Novel by rafael chirbes: do not call plague by its name

A love story between two men in Paris in the eighties forms the keystone of Rafael Chirbes’ work.

Close look that can dissect anything: Rafael Chirbes Photo: dpa

A chronicler is an author who writes with an alert mind about his own time, in whose novels one recognizes his epoch more clearly and in greater detail than one remembers it oneself. In the past twenty years, the Valencian Rafael Chirbes has written a whole series of outstanding novels that disillusioningly depict the development of Spanish society from the Civil War to the financial crisis. Fueled by subsidies and speculation, the country has been intoxicated by its own upswing since the end of the dictatorship.

Chirbes was suspicious of this. He noticed the concealed social losses, noticed the individual psychological injuries. Thus he was able to establish himself, albeit late, as one of the country’s great storytellers, more critical and more unwieldy than others. The fact that he was awarded the important Premio de la crItica for each of his two great socially critical novels, "Crematorium" and "On the Shore," is a sign of late recognition in Spain.

His latest novel, "Paris-Austerlitz," is a slim little book, an intimate love story. But this book is nothing less than the capstone that Chirbes places on his literary oeuvre. Even its beginning was inconspicuous. In 1988, the short novel "Mimoun" appeared. It is set in Morocco, where a young Spaniard has moved out to get to know life, the foreign country and also men. When "Paris-Austerlitz" tells of the love between two men, when they speak to each other in French in the text, when the narrator is a young Spanish artist, Chirbes clearly picks up where his first work left off and takes the theme to its bitter end in a melancholy farewell mood.

Chirbes had begun working on "Paris-Austerlitz" in 1996. In 2015, when he was already struggling with terminal lung cancer, he finished work on the manuscript. A young Spanish painter and an older Frenchman, factory workers, become romantically involved in 1980s Paris. As the story unfolds in flashbacks, we know that the older man, Michel, has AIDS and is hospitalized, where the young narrator visits him.

Passion and fear

Aids is never mentioned by name here; the narrator does not dare speak the threatening disease. Instead, there is talk of the "plague" (in the Spanish text, "la plaga" or "el mal") – a kind of spell that linguistically depicts the sheer fear of the narrator. Not only does he shy away from touching the dying man: when the latter gives him some laundry, he takes it to a laundry out of concern of catching it, even though he owns a washing machine himself.

Chirbes shapes the tragedy of love, fear, and death in actions such as this. The narrator observes this himself as he remembers his love for Michel. "But under this skin, in this body that seemed like an atlas of human bones, what was there left of the man who had attracted me."

What is there to the narrator’s self-accusations? There is no certainty

Slowly, almost tenderly, Chirbes unfolds the story of this unlikely couple. The young man loses himself for a few months in the Paris neighborhood, he loses himself in the relationship with Michel. He moves in with his friend, temporarily penniless. "At the end of the month, at home, we drank the bottles we had taken the precaution of buying on pay day and watched TV naked, devouring each other." It’s a fully realized present for a moment, until the young man begins to have more faith in his future again. When he is visited by his upper-middle-class mother in Paris, the lovers’ estrangement fully emerges.

A dangerous game

For their milieus, their life stories accompany them more than they admit. They both bring their emotional hardships with them, they cling to each other, and their passion conceals their fear. The young Spaniard calls their relationship "a dangerous game" when he realizes how much each loves the other for his own sake, how much they need and use each other. He exposes himself in retrospect: Was it love at all that he felt? Love knows no adverbs, he says himself. There is no such thing as a little love or a whole lot of love. This is the sound of the self-doubt that haunts him.

But it is Chirbes’ art that he does not allow any final conclusions about them here. How much of this failure is due to the milieu, how much to the different temperaments, the different perceptions of love? How much is there to the self-accusations, to the justifications of the narrator? There is no certainty about that.

Rafael Chirbes: "Paris-Austerlitz". Translated by Dagmar Ploetz. Antje Kunstmann, Munich 2016, 160 p., 20 euros.

What all of Chirbes’ books have in common is the precision with which they measure the almost unbearable betrayal in love and friendship, the disloyalty that may be excusable before everyone, but not before oneself. Chirbes exposes what is laboriously hidden: this is how it is, this is who we are, it is misery. This unconditional sincerity made his work a great narrative experience. "Paris-Austerlitz" is its beautiful, sad conclusion.

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